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In 2004 Vision Australia became Australia's first national blindness agency, following the merger of a number of different organisations. To mark that anniversary, current Chair Bill Jolley shares his thoughts on the past and future of Vision Australia.

Long time involvement

I was born blind and grew up in Victoria, learning braille from a very early age, so the organisations providing services to blind people were an important part of my life, starting with a residential school for blind children.

I was then active in the consumer movement reflecting and commenting on how services were received and perceived by people who were blind or had low vision, and that then enabled me to become an active community leader both nationally and internationally.

I then became more formally involved in Vision Australia, having led the integration of Seeing Eye Dogs Australia into Vision Australia in 2008, by first representing Seeing Eye Dog and Library service users on Vision Australia’s client advisory body.  

Some years later, in 2013 I joined the Board’s Audit, Finance and Risk committee and one year later I joined the board.

It's been a fundamental part of my life’s journey - first having been a client and then a consumer representative and advocate, then becoming a director of Vision Australia and ultimately its Chair.

I'm very proud of the organisation that I lead, and I regard my role as the chief custodian of Vision Australia’s governance as a privilege that has been very important in my life.

From 2004 until now

It’s six months that I've been chair of Vision Australia, but I have known the organisation since its formation 20 years ago. I think the biggest change I’ve seen is that there's been a blending of the individual cultures of the originating organisations. This was greatly helped by the adoption of the Unified Enterprise Agreement, the purpose of which was to align wages and conditions for all staff from the originating organisations.

Secondly, we've seen a change to individualised funding through the NDIS and more recently in the aged care space. That's helped to drive a commercial focus in Vision Australia, ushering in a very significant cultural change for the organisation.

That change also runs the risk of underpinning a transactional relationship with clients, so we work very hard to ensure the relationship we have with our clients remains one of genuine support, and not just transactional. 

The integration of Seeing Eye Dogs

In the year 2000, I became a director of an autonomous organisation known as Seeing Eye Dogs Australia (SEDA), and then became its Chair a few years later. We became aware that in aiming to provide a high standard of service, SEDA was not viable as an autonomous organisation.

We looked around for a suitable partner to ensure the sustainability of the service and provide for its growth, and Vision Australia was a very obvious choice with a comprehensive range of high-quality services of which Seeing Eye Dogs could become an integral part.

I am very proud of the integration of Seeing Eye Dogs into Vision Australia. It's a service that’s been very well supported by the public through fundraising, and we've been able to increase the range and the quality of services provided. It also means we have a world-class service based out of our office in Kensington.

Future challenges

I think that over the next 20 years there will be a challenging operating environment for Vision Australia.

As we note the 20th anniversary of Vision Australia, we also note externally that the economic and political environment is complex and the government's funding of services, both for people with disabilities and in the aged care space, is in some state of change.

This is going to have an impact on Vision Australia, so we're going to have to be sure to prioritise what we do. We might not be able to do everything that we want to do, but it's important that whatever we do is done to a very high standard so that we meet, as best we can, the needs of people who are blind or have low vision throughout Australia.

Future focus

While there are challenges on the horizon, we also need to recognise the opportunities present to us.

We must recognise the growing importance of artificial intelligence and in how it can help us improve the lives of people who are blind or have low vision.

I have no doubt AI can have benefits for how we deliver our services and manage the operations of Vision Australia, but also positively impact our clients in their day-to-day lives and ability to live independently. Supporting our clients to harness AI will be a key priority over the coming years.

There is also expected to be significant changes in the health environment for older Australians, particularly with genetic treatments that will prolong vision and slow sight loss for many people. 

While exactly what the future holds in this regard is not yet known, there is definitely an opportunity for Vision Australia to play a key role helping our clients to navigate the health, disability and aged care systems and ensuring that they receive the services and supports they need.

Final reflections

As we celebrate our 20th anniversary, it is timely to reflect on the growth of Vision Australia and on the high quality of services that we provide.

It's timely to acknowledge with gratitude the dedication of our staff, the quality of their work and their professionalism. We also deeply appreciate the support that we receive from many thousands of donors and corporate supporters right around Australia.

That support has been invaluable to us and enabled us to provide high quality services and continue to do exactly that into the future.